WASHINGTON -- Andy Lissak was reading his college newspaper at West Virginia University when he saw it: an ad for uofsports.com, an Internet gambling service promising "$$$$$s" and vowing "the fastest payout on the Web."
He logged on. He clicked. He won. He lost. He got hooked. Soon, he was placing online sports bets up to three times a day, slowly losing more and more money. By last spring, his grades had plummeted, his girlfriend had dumped him and he owed $7,000 on his credit cards.
Lissak is one of scores of college students who might never have wagered were it not for online sports betting sites, whose ease and anonymity make them the perfect gambling hideaway on the nation's campuses.
The siren call of quick cash and the ease of point-and-click technology provide a gambling culture that many believe is thriving just below the radar of college administrators -- upstaging the random campus bookie whose shady connections and illegal deal-making often scared off the average college kid.
"Internet gambling is as dangerous as alcohol on campuses," said Lissak, a 20-year-old sports management major who quit gambling this year and hopes that his story of hitting financial and emotional rock bottom at age 19 will stop other students from making the same mistakes.
"A lot of my friends are failing out of school because of it, because it's all you think about.Colleges just don't realize how bad it is."
The sites are so common and the Web site appeals to students so brazen that players might not even recognize that sports betting is illegal in almost every state. But then, there are no states on the Internet, a fact that has frustrated the policing of these sites and raised messy legal questions.
Gambling addiction experts call cyber-wagering a stealth addiction on campuses, occurring behind dorm room doors and in unmonitored computer rooms with no one the wiser.
Lissak, now a junior, started betting online last year to pay off student loans. But the diversion quickly grew into an obsession that, he said, "controlled my life."
Even after a friend dropped out of Virginia Tech to pay off $5,000 lost in a single online Super Bowl bet, Lissak was logging on to place more wagers, spending hours scrambling to make up for the previous day's losses.
Isolation adds to danger
No one -- not his girlfriend of two years, not his parents at home in upper-middle-class Fairfax, Va. -- suspected that he was hooked on sports betting. Not even as Lissak slowly disengaged from college life.
"I had a computer class, and I'd just go on the Internet and look at what to bet on, but nobody could tell what I was doing," Lissak said. The problem worsened, fueled by the isolation of the Internet, where wagers quickly spun out of control.
"When you're on the Internet," he said, "it was never like there was someone you're talking to, someone saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' "
And students rarely speak up when the gambling goes awry.
Matt Wiegman, a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., said he has spent $10,000 on the sites over the past four years and is loath to stop. "I'm winning right now," he reasoned.
More public signs of campus cyber-gambling -- particularly sports betting, the most popular kind of student wager -- began appearing regularly at the start of this school year.
Just after classes began at Penn State University, a half-page ad in the Collegian, the campus newspaper, directed students to a sports betting and Las Vegas-style casino Web site -- prompting college administrators to wonder whether they should ban all cyber-casino advertising on campus.
At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, another site put its address on campus bulletin boards with the tease, "Are you fed up with your bookie playing the spread? Then come to the best sports book on the net."
On a single day last week, Casino Jazz, one of more than 300 Internet gambling sites, received 50 calls to its Costa Rican headquarters after it sent a mass mailing to the nation's fraternity houses. The students called toll-free.
Even without the involvement of young people, the cyber-gambling phenomenon is rife with legal questions and arrests. The Justice Department says online gambling is illegal because it occurs in states where wagering is outlawed and violates the federal Wire Communications Act, which makes a phone call to a bookie a crime.
Armed with that act, the federal government charged 14 owners and managers of six offshore companies in March 1998 with unlawfully accepting wagers from Americans. The first trial is set to begin soon in New York.
For their part, Internet gambling operators argue that their Web sites break no U.S. laws because they are run entirely in places, such as the Caribbean and Central America, where gambling is legal. What's more, many say they voluntarily enforce a code of conduct that promotes responsible gambling.
The industry, fighting for legitimacy, is even lobbying to be taxed and regulated by the U.S. government.
While federal authorities and Web site operators wage war over whether a bet is placed on U.S. "soil" when done in the nonterrestrial realm of the Internet, the cyber-betting craze continues to soar.
Online gambling operators estimated that their revenue more than doubled from 1997 to 1998, topping $919 million last year. Other studies indicate the figure will reach $2.3 billion by 2001.
Young and affluent
Enter college students. This young, often affluent group comes complete with new credit cards and college-supplied Internet hookups. Unlike their parents, they grew up in an age in which legalized gambling has become commonplace, with lotteries in at least 37 states.
"When you combine the Internet with the proliferation of kids who think they can beat the system with gambling, you have a very, very serious problem, and I don't think any of us have a grasp on the scope of it," said Rick Taylor, athletic director at Northwestern University.
"I don't know how you control what kids do in their dorm rooms at midnight."
Many gambling self-help groups and college mental health experts say they hear little about Internet gambling addiction, and some call the trend impossible to track.
"We haven't really heard about it, and I don't think we would," said Dr. Jerome Kaufman, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland's student health center. "Most people with an addiction are in denial. And the Internet is such a private medium that people may not talk about it."
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, alarmed by the spread of Internet gambling on campuses, is lobbying for a bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, that would ban online gaming and punish its operators. Wary of the Internet's potential use in point-shaving schemes in collegiate athletics, the NCAA quotes studies that show college students with the highest rates of pathological and problem gambling.
The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, fearful that campuses are on the verge of a major problem, recently created a task force of college deans, athletic directors and mental health experts to study the problems of campus gambling -- and the possibility that students are becoming addicted online.
Visit from a bookie
"A nonstudent was just in a frat house at our school passing out his card as a bookie for Internet gambling," said Jim Caswell, vice president for student affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"To me, that suggests the tip of an iceberg -- and most of us in higher education, I believe we have our heads in the sand about it."
At many gambling sites, operators see college students as the next great untapped market.
"A college-age kid -- that is the perfect fit for a site like this," said Mike Reeder, a former bookie who described himself as a consultant to Casino Jazz, the company in Costa Rica.
"I'm somewhat at odds with my employers, who want as much money in their pockets as fast as they can."
The company recently commissioned a marketing study that pinpointed college-age students as a key demographic target. Despite warnings that hitting the fraternity circuit would heap bad press on the company, Reeder said, the firm's operators fired off dozens of fliers to campuses.
Another Internet gambling operation, the Antigua-based World Sports Exchange, estimates that 10 percent of its business comes from college students. It says its Web site draws 10,000 regular customers and has signed 1,000 more over the past month for football season.
But the operators of this site -- former floor traders in the Pacific Stock Exchange who say they are just average American guys trying to make a living -- argue that what they are providing is a risk-free and completely legal service that accommodates students who would find a way to bet on sports one way or another.
"Everybody's going to bet on football games," said Steve Schillinger, director of wagering at World Sports Exchange, which the FBI has targeted as an illegal gaming operation.
"They'll either do it in Las Vegas or through a local bookie and meet him in a bar and get paid. This is the professional way to do business."
'They can't stop us'
Schillinger, one of those indicted on federal charges in connection with Internet gambling, has refused to return to the United States and remains in Antigua.
"We don't believe they can stop Internet gambling," Schillinger said. "They arrested us, and we're still going."
Many Web sites are eager to persuade authorities that they are not shady operations, but mainstream businesses.
While some sites offer links to online money-lending services -- taking away the external controls of credit card limits -- many others provide links to gambling-addiction Web pages and use controls aimed at curbing impulse betting.
Not all students who gamble online believe the practice is destructive.
Many sites forbid players to bet beyond what is set aside in an online account established before their first bet. Others require extra paperwork before permitting players to place four-figure bets, something they say slows players down before high-rolling.
Adding to the controls, some credit card companies now impose daily limits for purchases of online wagers. And so most students say the bets are entirely secure and perfectly legal.
"You can feel safe about your money," said Tom Kasprovich, an aspiring stockbroker at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. "All the Super Bowl office pools are more illegal than this."
A finance major, Kasprovich says he has made more than $6,000 in profits in the past three years.
So long as there are games to bet on, Kasprovich will be offering a wager.
Should authorities manage to block all Internet gambling sites, Kasprovich says, "I'll just look for some other way to bet."
But even this college senior concedes that there are ways to work the system that would make most college administrators shudder. Few Web sites, he said, ever check players' names, ages and backgrounds.
"To be quite honest, if an athlete on a college athletic team wanted to do it under a different name, it would be pretty easy and I'm sure it happens out there," Kasprovich said. "The [online companies] obviously aren't going to be able to control who presses a button to enter."
Hobby becomes compulsion
It is exactly that element of secrecy that helped turn a hobby into a compulsion for students such as West Virginia University's Lissak.
One harrowing four-month experience with online gambling, he said, was enough for a lifetime.
So this football season, Lissak will follow his favorite Philadelphia teams but has vowed not to bet a dime -- and is sending his parents his monthly credit card bills to prove it. He might have stopped doubting himself, but Lissak still worries for his classmates.
"I know it's addictive," he said, sounding weary beyond his years. "It can do a lot of harm."
Pub Date: 9/22/99